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Is an independent school right for you?

Choosing a school for your child has to be one of the most important decisions of your parenting life, but have you considered going private?

Sure, many of us would love to send our precious darlings to the very best of independent schools – just think of those rolling driveways, acres and acres of playing fields, indoor swimming pools and state-of-the-art science labs. But what is independent schooling really about, and is it right for your family? We pick the brains of the management team at Warminster School, a blended entity of Prep and Senior shepherding boys and girls from age 2 to 18 – a co-ed, day and boarding school on the edge of Salisbury Plain that prides itself on nurturing happy, confident and community-spirited pupils…

Stripped back to basics, what are the real benefits of an independent education?

You would be hard pushed to find a parent who didn’t truly believe that what they were giving their child was the space to ‘grow’, coupled with a greater chance of being both ‘heard’ and ‘seen’. Sounds cheesy?  The truth behind this is that a wider range of activities during a typical school day provides the ‘growing’ bit and smaller numbers in the classroom ensure the latter bits.  Tag on to that the ripple effects such as self-confidence (often by the bucket load), daily exposure to impressive art, music and sporting experiences not to mention the commonly mentioned notion and hard to ‘put a finger on it’ personality trait of possessing ‘presence’.

One school in particular, Warminster, has proven to be rather good at ‘growing, hearing and seeing’ their pupils, and personifies that echelon of independent school that currently so many parents in this time poor, economically stretched era are seeking. Headmaster Matt Williams sums it up succinctly, “We see our pupils as confident but without the arrogance”.  With the ‘arrogance’ card so often played against independent schools, Warminster has clearly done its homework.

A common misconception is that private schools are only for the very wealthy, but how does this play out in reality?

When it comes to fee structures you might be surprised to discover just how much they can differ.  At the top end are a number of independent schools for whom day and boarding fees merge into one.  However, these schools are not for the faint hearted when it comes to balancing the house hold accounts each month. Delve a little deeper into the day fee structure and there is a surprising amount of wriggle room. It’s essential not to forget that there is a world of difference between £8K per term as opposed to £5K when you are dividing the net income pie.  Multiply that then by 2 or more children and you have a summer holiday you might not have had, a new car or simply the comfort of knowing the mortgage is safely being paid. Remember to look for other ‘sweeteners’ too; part of Warminster’s authentic sense of community is the number of families drawn to send more than 1 sibling at the same time.  Matt sees it as a win/win offering, “Warminster holds its sense of community at the very core of its ethos.  By offering sibling discounts, larger families help underpin this principle whilst clearly benefitting those families in financial terms.”

No one is denying that choosing an independent education for your child is not going to be influenced by the size of the family coffers but there are smart choices out there.  Increasingly, no matter individuals’ incomes, being smart with money, is exactly that – smart.  With independent schools right across the board upping their game to meet the demands of both current and prospective families and their children, opting for a so called ‘cheaper’ product in no way cheapens their journey or the outcome.  It’s a question of weighing up the scale of opportunities and experiences on offer.

What about choice? Heading down the independent route offers significantly more choice than in the state system but what does that really mean?

You won’t hear a debate about independent education without the word ‘choice’ being mentioned at almost every juncture.  Choice starts from the moment parents start pouring over websites and prospectuses. At Warminster, Matt talks about choice as ‘the right fit’, whether that’s for an individual child or for a family as a whole, as the luxury of a different school for a different child isn’t always practical for many.  Indeed, with the mesmerising offering both inside and outside the classroom, it’s hard for independent schools not to dazzle and present a cohesive ‘one size fits all’ option.

So, whether it be sport, music, drama, science or the Arts, the large proportion of independent schools simply represent the freedom for parents to provide a privileged education for their child.  And once a child walks through the school gates, choice ie their choices, become part of their daily life.  With a powerful offering of co-curricular activities at Warminster from beekeeping to DJ slots on the School’s own 1707 Radio Station the options are evident. As Matt explains, “encouraging our pupils to make independent decisions about the subjects they will study and the activities they will engage in is all part and parcel of their school experience. Making those choices, supported by staff who really know them, helps them carve their own path with us.  Learning how to make the right choices early on is an invaluable life skill.”

Do private schools have a monopoly on enthusiastic, talented and inspired teachers?

Absolutely not on both counts but what you may encounter is that although teachers in both sectors are busy with seemingly ever-expanding work-loads, smaller class sizes equate to a greater feeling of control over what goes on inside the class room.  Feeling in control whether you are a teacher, engineer, nurse or plumber, results in a more fulfilled working life.  Which in turn translates into a natural enthusiasm for the workplace and therefore a stronger likelihood of inspiring those around you.

Bear in mind too that the independent sector teachers tend to have a broader remit, meaning that their geography teacher might also be their Head of House, sports teacher as well as tutor.  Getting to know a child in such a multi-faceted way results in stronger teacher/pupil relationships which invariably leads to a sense of greater mutual respect and a willingness to perform, from both parties.  There also has to be a powerful element of not being restricted by the National Curriculum.  At Warminster, where the International Baccalaureate is offered alongside A Levels the knock-on effect is tangible.  With a truly international community represented by over 30 nationalities both teachers and pupils benefit from being exposed to different curriculums, teaching methods and educational expectations.

How is the individual encouraged to flourish in an independent school?

Run a word check for ‘flourish’ through any independent school prospectus and you should expect it to feature more than just a handful of times! But what do we really mean? In a literal sense, to flourish means to grow in a healthy and vigorous manner. The schools that understand the inextricable link between ‘healthy’ and ‘vigorous’ are the ones that earn their excellent reputation. Getting that balance just right, that ‘sweet point’, where pupils are allowed to grow genuinely at their own pace but happy to up their game as and when the opportunity arises – that’s the clever bit.

At Warminster, Matt believes that the size of their school helps facilitate getting the balance right. With around 500 pupils spread from the nursery through to Upper Sixth, there is an honest sense of community, friendships spread across year groups and every face has a name. “You won’t find a pupil ‘blending in’ here at Warminster,” Matt explains,  “Importantly there are no wall flowers either. That’s not to say that pupils are in any way forced to take the spotlight, it’s all about as and when they are ready. To use a theatrical analogy, the prompt is every bit as important as the main role.”

As a parent then, what are the signs that your child might flourish at any given school? Matt would argue that it’s a combination of a range of opportunities backed up by a supportive and stimulating environment. “We don’t just see the support aspect as a staffing responsibility either. Pupil to pupil mentoring is hugely beneficial when it comes to enabling individuals. Being on the receiving end of words of encouragement from a fellow pupil, who themselves has recently conquered a similar fear, can’t really be matched in terms of impact.”

Ultimately, nothing beats visiting and seeing as much of a school in action as you can. Make sure you drop in on an Open Day – these events are of course orchestrated but pupils en masse can’t keep the pretence up for long and you will get a feel for a school and a gauge as to whether it is worth short listing.   Warminster’s Open Day (the next one is Saturday 25 April) is a popular event and with over subscription for the last 3 years running, it’s best to reserve a space early. Read the Warminster School Muddy Review here, plus, take a look at their new prospectus here. Contact Admissions on 01985 224800 or email admissions@warminsterschool.org.uk

Warminster School, Tel 01985 210160 warminsterschool.org.uk

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